No Other Book: Selected Essaysby Randall Jarrell
Randall Jarrell was only fifty-one at the time of his death, in 1965, yet he created a body of work that secured his position as one of the century's leading American men of letters. Although he saw himself chiefly as a poet, publishing a number of books of poetry, he also left behind a sparkling comic novel, four children's books, numerous translations, haunting
Randall Jarrell was only fifty-one at the time of his death, in 1965, yet he created a body of work that secured his position as one of the century's leading American men of letters. Although he saw himself chiefly as a poet, publishing a number of books of poetry, he also left behind a sparkling comic novel, four children's books, numerous translations, haunting letters, and four collections of essays. Edited by Brad Leithauser, No Other Bookdraws from these four essay collections, reminding us that Jarell the poet was also, in the words of Robert Lowell, "a critic of genius."
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The Obscurity of the Poet
When I was asked to talk about the Obscurity of the Modern Poet I was delighted, for I have suffered from this obscurity all my life. But then I realized that I was being asked to talk not about the fact that people don't read poetry, but about the fact that most of them wouldn't understand it if they did: about the difficulty, not the neglect, of contemporary poetry. And yet it is not just modern poetry, but poetry, that is today obscure. Paradise Lost is what it was; but the ordinary reader no longer makes the mistake of trying to read it -- instead he glances at it, weighs it in his hand, shudders, and suddenly, his eyes shining, puts it on his list of the ten dullest books he has ever read, along with Moby Dick, War and Peace, Faust, and Boswell's Life of Johnson. But I am doing this ordinary reader an injustice: it was not the Public, nodding over its lunch-pall, but the educated reader, the reader the universities have trained, who a few weeks ago, to the Public's sympathetic delight, put together this list of the world's dullest books.
Since most people know about the modern poet only that he is obscure -- i.e., that he is difficult, i.e., that he is neglected -- they naturally make a causal connection between the two meanings of the word, and decide that he is unread because he is difficult. Some of the time this is true; some of the time the reverse is true: the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry. But most of the time neither is a cause -- both are no more than effects of that long-continued, world overturning culturaland social revolution (seen at its most advanced stage here in the United States) which has made the poet difficult and the public unused to any poetry exactly as it has made poet and public divorce their wives, stay away from church, dislike bull-baiting, free the slaves, get insulin shots for diabetes, or do a hundred thousand other things, some bad, some good, and some indifferent. It is superficial to extract two parts from this world-high whole, and to say of them: "This one, here, is the cause of that one, there; and that's all there is to it."
If we were in the habit of reading poets their obscurity would not matter; and, once we are out of the habit, their clarity does not help. Matthew Arnold said, with plaintive respect, that there was hardly a sentence in Lear that he hadn't needed to read two or three times; and three other appreciable Victorian minds, Beetle, Stalky, and McTurk, were even harder on it. They are in their study; Stalky reads:
Never any. It pleased the king his master, very late,
To strike at me, upon his misconstruction,
When he, conjunct, and flattering in his displeasure,
Tripped me behind: being down, insulted, railed,
And put upon him such a deal of man
That worthy'd him, got praises of the King
For him attempting who was self-subdued;
And, in the fleshment of this dread exploit,
Drew me on here.
Stalky says: "Now, then, my impassioned bard, construez! That's Shakespeare"; and Beetle answers, "at the end of a blank half minute": "Give it up! He's drunk." If schoolboys were forced to read "The Phoenix and Turtle," what would Beetle have said of these two stanzas?
Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called,
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together;
To themselves yet either-neither,
Simple were so well compounded ...
You and I can afford to look at Stalky and Company, at Arnold, with dignified superiority: we know what those passages mean; we know that Shakespeare is never obscure, as if he were some modernist poet gleefully pasting puzzles together in his garret. Yet when we look at a variorum Shakespeare with its line or two of text at the top of the page, its forty or fifty lines of wild surmise and quarrelsome conjecture at the bottom -- we are troubled. When the Alexandrian poet Lycophron refers -- and he is rarely so simple -- to the centpede, fair-faced, stork-hued daughters of Phalacra, and they turn out to be boats, one ascribes this to Alexandrian decadence; but then one remembers that Welsh and Irish and Norse poets, the poets of a hundred barbarous cultures, loved nothing so much as referring to the very dishes on the table by elaborate descriptive epithets -- periphrases, kennings -- which their hearers had to be specially educated to understand. (Loved nothing so much, that is, except riddles.) And just consider the amount of classical allusions that those polite readers, our ancestors, were expected to recognize -- and did recognize. If I recite to you, The brotherless Heliades / Melt in such amber tears as these, many of you will think, Beautiful; a good many will think, Marvell; but how many of you will know to whom Marvell is referring?
Yet the people of the past were not repelled by this obscurity (seemed, often, foolishly to treasure it); nor are those peoples of the present who are not so far removed from the past as we: who have preserved, along with the castles, the injustice, and the social discrimination of the past, a remnant of its passion for reading poetry. It is hard to be much more difficult than Mallarmé yet when I went from bookstore to bookstore in Paris, hunting for one copy of Corbière, I began to feel a sort of mocking frustration at the poems by Mallarmé, letters by Mallarmé, letters to Mallarmé, biographies of, essays on, and homage to Mallarmé with which the shelves of those bookstores tantalized me. For how long now the French poet has been writing as if the French public did not exist -- as if it were, at best, a swineherd dreaming of that faraway princess the poet; yet it looks at him with traditional awe, and reads in dozens of literary newspapers, scores of magazines, the details of his life, opinions, temperament, and appearance...
Meet the Author
Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) received the National Book Award for his book of poems The Woman at the Washington Zoo. His children's book The Animal Family was named a Newbery Honor Book, and his translation of The Three Sisters was produced by The Actors Studio Theatre.
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